AI Poems Lack Verbal Magic

11/02/2018
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is creeping into modern life. Computers forecast weather, diagnose disease, and defend against cyberattacks. An AI program even defeated a human smarty-pants at Jeopardy! Now a group of researchers asks, “Can deep learning techniques be harnessed to write poetry?”

“Deep learning” is a machine learning method that sorts through layers (that’s where the “deep” comes from) of information. Deep learning programs use data from each layer to influence how to decode the next.

It’s easy to understand how a computer performs repetitive jobs. But in recent years, AI algorithms called Artificial Neural Networks have also ventured into creative tasks. They’ve generated original music and artwork—some fairly good. Still, few researchers have tried to program an AI to write poetry. That’s partly because good poetry uses elements like tone and word choice that are difficult to describe, let alone write a computer program for.

But researchers from IBM Research Australia, the University of Toronto, and the University of Melbourne decided to try. In a paper published in July, they describe a new deep learning algorithm called “Deep-Speare.” (Dost thou get it?)

Researchers designed Deep-Speare to create poems matching the style and beauty of William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Using a large database of English language poetry (not just Shakespeare’s), programmers collected 2,685 sonnets into a group or “data set.” Each 16-line sonnet shared the meter and rhyme features of Shakespeare’s sonnets. They asked Deep-Speare to generate four-line poems using the sonnet data set. Researchers then sent the AI’s poems to human judges, along with human-written poems.

Deep-Speare’s poems scored high on form, such as meter and rhyme. No surprise there—AI is good at following rules. But the study’s authors say the computer-generated poetry fell short on readability and emotion.

Here’s an example of a Deep-Speare poem:

Shall I behold him in his cloudy state
For just by tempteth me to stop and pray
a cry: if it will drag me, find no way
from pardon to him, who will stand and wait.

The rhyme and meter (iambic pentameter—ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM) work. However, Deep-Speare failed to recognize “tempteth” as a verb. It can’t follow a preposition. Plus, the poem just doesn’t make sense.

Deep-Speare’s inventors say, “Future research should look beyond forms towards the substance of good poetry.” They realize that good structure and “rule-following” isn’t enough to make verbal magic.

For comparison, here are the first four lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.